Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

J. S. Mill on Wages and Women: A Feminist Critique

Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

J. S. Mill on Wages and Women: A Feminist Critique

Article excerpt

Abstract "J. S. Mill on Wages and Women" questions the common belief that Mill, despite his feminism, never suggested an end to the sexual division of labor because of his devotion to the concept of efficiency and other tenets of classical economics. A review of Mill's analysis of a competitive labor market indicates that he believed it to be fully consistent with women's equality in the workforce. In fact, in his works on women, it becomes clear that Mill was concerned that the logical extension of classical economic principles might lead to the i of domestic duties, including child rearing, a notion he evidently feared. Therefore, it was Mill's fear of, rather than dedication to, extreme allegiance to efficiency and unimpeded capitalism that limited his feminism.

Keywords: J. S. Mill, classical thought, economics and feminism, occupational segregation, sexual division of labor, domestic duties, women's wages.

J. S. Mill's Principles of Political Economy was the primary text for economic study in British and American universities for almost fifty years. Basically Ricardian, most of Mill's political economy was not terribly original, but his book was well written and accessible, even finding an audience in the working class. Browsing through contemporary texts on the history of economic thought, (2) Mill seems to be best remembered for his insights into and clarification of some of Ricardo's models. What is not found in these histories is mention of the fact that Mill addressed issues such as discrimination against women in the labor market long before terms like "Job segregation" were coined. Today, most mainstream economists attribute sexual (or any other type) of discrimination to given tastes and preferences, and leave the problem to academics in other disciplines (although a few attempt to define the proximate causes of sex, wage and income differentials through quantitative analysis). Mill's feminism, however, is not a subject that most contemporary economists find interesting.

The evolution of "political economy" into "economics," itself at least partly the result of the liberal notion that the government should not "interfere" in the economy, is one reason why Mill's feminism is ignored by economists but not by feminist political theorists such as Diana Coole. Coole believes that "[i]t is ... where economic relationships appear on the agenda that Mill is least adequate in addressing women's problems." (3) Her statement that "J. S. Mill's commitment to liberal economics ... severely limits his feminism" (4) obviously implies that the two--Mill's economics and his dedication to feminism--were in conflict. I agree with Coole on this first point, but I do not agree that the second point follows from it. Although Mill's analysis of women in the labor market is inadequate and it seems at least partially incorrect, I will argue that it is not his dedication to, but rather his fear of, unimpeded capitalism that limits his feminism.

I believe that the common feminist assessment of the tension between Mill's confidence in market forces and his convictions regarding women's equality is simply inaccurate. Mill indicates in his analysis of a competitive labor market that he believes it to be fully consistent with women's economic equality. However, in this paper, I will engage in a feminist critique of Mill on women's wages in his Principles, and on women's s economic and social equality more generally in his "On Marriage" (5) and "The Subjection of Women." (6) While I believe that Mill's classism and inability to commit to the notion that women are "the same" as men affected his feminism, I will also argue that Mill may also have recognized and feared the potential for the breakdown of the traditional family that existed through the logical extension of some of the claims in his Principles, and that it was principally this fear that curbed his feminism. In my opinion, then, it was not Mill's economics that restrained his feminism at all, bu t it was primarily his affection for the traditional family (of an income-earning husband and a wife whose unpaid occupation is the rearing of their children) that limited both his economics and his feminism. …

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